Stanford tight end Zach Ertz threw down the gauntlet last week. Vying to be the top tight end chosen in next month's NFL draft, Ertz posted times and test scores at Stanford's pro day that were superior to Notre Dame counterpart Tyler Eifert.
And then, Ertz elevated the competition just a little by suggesting that Eifert needs to run this week at Notre Dame's pro day.
"If I was him, I'd want to compete and I'd run again," Ertz said, matter-of-factly. "If you're a competitive person, you want to test yourself all the time."
Regardless of who is chosen first, both of them stand to have an immediate impact on the league. Eifert and Ertz are entering the NFL in what is essentially the golden age of pass-catching tight ends. From Rob Gronkowski to Jimmy Graham to even an aging Tony Gonzalez, tight end play has never been more important.
Or, in another sense, more easy to take advantage of.
As the NFL becomes more safety conscious and wary of ugly hits in the middle of the field, the response by offense has been to feed the ball to that spot. Gonzalez, who has averaged 86.8 catches per year compared to 72.1 over his first 10, and Jason Witten are prime examples.
"It's just like basketball, you want to attack from the inside out," said the San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh, who coached Ertz for a year at Stanford. "You're trying to go after the heart of the defense, whether it's running the ball between the tackles or throwing down the middle of the field. You do that and you cause chaos for the defense."
That leads back to the question of Ertz vs. Eifert. While in some ways this is a matter of taste, it's a nonetheless critical call for the teams.
"You can't just get by at that position anymore," an NFC general manager said. "You have to have somebody who has to be accounted for. Baltimore has [Dennis] Pitta and [Ed] Dickson. San Francisco has Vernon Davis and they had [Delanie Walker, who recently left as a free agent]. I can tell you right now, we're going to look long and hard at the two guys you're talking about."
The book on Ertz vs. Eifert is a classic example of 1A vs. 1B. Both are considered excellent talents. Who is better is a matter of taste. Of five GMs who were polled, three said they preferred Eifert. All of them said they'd be happy to end up with Ertz.
"I'll take the second guy, whoever it is," said an AFC general manager who graded Eifert a little better based on his fluid athleticism. "I just like that better because I think you can flex him out and get some better mismatches."
Zach Ertz (6-6, 249)
Tyler Eifert (6-6, 250)
69 catches, 898 yards, 6 TDs
50 catches, 685 yards, 4 TDs
27-346, 4 TDs
63-803, 5 TDs
16-190, 5 TDs
27-352, 2 TDs
Ertz, however, is a tight end's tight end. Literally, at least if you listen to former San Francisco Pro Bowler Brent Jones, that's the distinct feeling you get. The effusive praise is endless and earnest, as if Ertz was Jones' own prodigy.
To an extent, Ertz is.
As a volunteer assistant coach at Monte Vista High in Danville, Calif., Jones tutored Ertz from the time the young man was a sophomore and even helped sell Harbaugh on giving Ertz a scholarship. Now that Ertz is on the cusp of making it to the NFL, Jones sounds almost like a proud father, particularly when comparing Ertz to Eifert.
"To me, when I hear people talk about how Eifert is a better receiver, I just don't get it," Jones said. "Zach is such a precise route runner who understands all the little things you need to do to be great at the next level."
That came from hours upon hours of Jones drilling Ertz on advanced techniques, the things that legendary coach Bill Walsh once demanded of Jones.
"At first, it would annoy me that he was getting on me like that," said Ertz, who ran a 4.62 in the 40-yard dash, leaped 35 ½ inches in the vertical and 9-foot-6 in the broad jump in front of 31 teams on Thursday at his pro day workout at Stanford. Eifert posted a 4.68, 35 ½ and 9-11 at the combine.
"All these years later, I understand what [Jones] was asking of me … When we were going through the drills, I was completely at ease with everything they were asking me to do," said Ertz, who once upon a time was a high school basketball star more focused on a career in college hoops.
Of course, in basketball it's a lot easier to settle the score. A good one-on-one matchup can conclude any argument. In this case, that's not happening.
But, for now, the ball is in Eifert's court. What will he do come Tuesday?
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